[b-hebrew] linguistics, was Re: Prov. 30:19

Karl Randolph kwrandolph at email.com
Mon Oct 13 20:35:30 EDT 2003

Dear Trevor:

Like you, I think this discussion is becoming increasingly fruitless.

What I objected to was the bold statement that certain things couldn’t be true, because reconstruction based on theory says it’s not true. That’s a backwards application of theory (sadly all too common, even in the “hard” sciences) because it is using theory to judge facts, whereas the proper use of theory has facts judging theory. 

----- Original Message -----
From: "Trevor Peterson" <06peterson at cua.edu>
> Karl wrote:
> > Or to put it another way, who is a more accurate indicator of 
> > historical events? The one who lived through or observed the 
> > events (tempered by his adherence to the truth), or the 
> > modern historian who reconstructs the events based on his 
> > presuppositions? 
> Don't you think this is a rather simplistic portrayal of the situation?
> The only indication that you're suggesting we have of what the
> eyewitnesses thought is the writing system they used. But to conclude
> that their writing system shows us a set of only 22 phonemes requires
> the application of a modern historical construct. The bottom line is
> that we can't get away from working as modern historians. It then
> becomes a question of how naïve we're going to be in the process.

No, it is not simplistic. Does it mean accepting all documents uncritically? Again no. To use a well-known example, Homer wrote about events that happened at the close of the bronze age. But was his interest mainly to tell an accurate history, or to tell a rollicking good story? By studying the people and society, we find that it was the latter, for which he was quite willing to embellish the tale. Therefore, the Illiad is historical fiction based on a historical Trojan war. We need to evaluate all our source documents in the same manner.

There are other types of source documents such as art, sculpture, surviving artifacts and even the nature of writing. As such, the 22 characters in Biblical Hebrew, i.e. that spoken before the Galut Babel, is a “source document” in that it is an indicator that the Hebrew of that time had only 22 consonantal phonemes. Not proof, but it is an indicator. It is a snapshot of the language at that time, albeit a blurry one.
> [snipped]
> > This was the time that if the original Semitic 
> > language had more phonemes, that it would have been a simple 
> > matter to add more glyphs. That they did not until later is 
> > evidence that phonemes are added to, as well as subtracted 
> > from, the languages.
> Again, I think you're confusing too much the history of writing with the
> history of language. <snip>

As historical linguists, writing is our only clue. There are no surviving native speakers to contact.
Reconstructions based on theory are not evidence, for it is very possible that theory is wrong.
> > 
> [snipped]
> > That we find a certain commonality in those 
> > additions over different languages is because shifts in 
> > sounds usually follow fairly regular patterns, and influenced 
> > by contacts between speakers of the different cognate languages.
> This is an inadequate explanation. I can only assume that you have not
> actually looked at the evidence you're trying to explain. We are talking
> here about a phoneme splitting in such a way in language A and in
> language B that the same set of cognate roots appears in language A with
> new phoneme X and in language B with new phoneme Y. It actually gets
> more complicated than that, because we have more languages to work into
> the pattern. If you think you have a system of rules according to which
> you can explain this consistency, I'm sure there are plenty of scholars
> who would love to hear it. But until you present those rules, I suspect
> most of them are going to stick with the explanation that has already
> been well established, that these correspondences result from variable
> convergence of originally shared phonemes (and that convergence
> according to well-established phonetic rules).

While I don’t deny that convergence occures, the addition of new phonemes seems to be a more common event, at least from what I observed. The most common mechanism I have observed for adding phonemes is foreign contact, in ancient times mostly through trade. A new sound comes in along with the name of a new object, the name being from a foreign language. That name can even be from a cognate language. After the new phoneme has become established in a language from loan words, it is then applied to native words as well. I would not be surprised if a survey were made, that those Semitic languages that have the most phonemes are where the local populations historically have had the most contacts with foreign languages. For example, South Arabian peoples had trading contacts with Africa, India and beyond, at a time when ancient Israel, Judea and Samaria were fairly isolated. And for Israel, the BGDKPT and sin/shin differences were learned from Aramaic, including the rules on how t
 o divide them up. I haven’d done surveys over many languages to back up these observations, but I see no reason to reject these observations.
> Trevor Peterson
> CUA/Semitics

No, I don’t plan to make a survey as outlined in the above paragraph, as my main interest is in Biblical Hebrew, in particular that which was before the Galut Babel. I don’t have the resources and time to make that survey.

Karl W. Randolph.
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